Lamp Artist Finds Watts of Success

By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs

Barbara Cosgrove Photo by Tim Pott

Barbara Cosgrove doesn’t make ordinary lamps.  She designs beautiful, sleek creations with clean lines and shades in tasteful, muted colors. Most of her lamps look like sculptures because, well, they are, in a way.

They reflect the fact that Cosgrove, who founded Barbara Cosgrove Lamps at age 47, is – first and foremost – an artist.  While attending the Kansas City Art Institute, she studied with Ken Ferguson, one of the best potters in the world.  She also has a master’s degree in sculpture and spatial arts from San Jose State University.

For years, Cosgrove had her own art studio, a remote place she kept warm with a space heater and accessed by climbing three flights of stairs.  “It was a very solitary experience,” she says.

A Career Dilemma

By the time Cosgrove reached her mid-40s, her two children were grown and the mortgage was paid.  She was ready to do something else. 

The problem was finding a suitable career, given her age, level of education and artistic nature.  “If you’re a creative person, you’re only happy if you’re doing something creative,” she says.

“Looking back, there weren’t a lot of options,” adds Cosgrove.  “I had been making decisions all this time and wasn’t going to have someone start making them for me.” 

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 “Working for yourself means working twice as hard and twice as much.  Be sure to pick a business you like.” — Barbara Cosgrove, Barbara Cosgrove Lamps

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In 1996, she started Barbara Cosgrove Lamps in her garage.  For Cosgrove, the early days confirmed the importance of tenacity. “Someone said to me, ‘this business is like a tiger.  If you get off, it will eat you,’” she says.  “You have to figure out how to stay on.”

Initially, Cosgrove’s biggest concern was putting her family’s assets at risk by taking out large loans.  To mitigate the risk, she funded the startup herself and diversified her financial portfolio by purchasing a resort property as an investment.   

Her strategies, both financial and otherwise, paid off.  Fifteen years later, Barbara Cosgrove Lamps is an international lamp operation whose 3,500 commercial clients include Neiman Marcus, Lillian August, Thom Filicia, Jayson Home & Garden and Grace Home Furnishings, along with other retailers, designers and showrooms.  While the company’s business is mostly wholesale, consumers can purchase products directly via its website.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based company, which had three million dollars in revenue last year, has eight employees in its headquarters and more than 40 sales representatives nationwide.  It offers nearly 100 lamp designs between two collections, The Collection and the Affordable BCL Style (NBC’s “The Apprentice” used some of Cosgrove’s lamps during its third season).  A third collection, Studio, features “occasional furniture” such as side tables and other home accent items.

The Value of Life Experience

In 2007, Country Living magazine named Cosgrove as one of its top women entrepreneurs.  She attributes her business acumen to listening to people, including her entrepreneurial husband and a neighbor who is an accountant.  It didn’t hurt that her grandparents and father were entrepreneurs as well. 

“Life experience brings a lot to the business table,” she says. “By the time you’re 45, you know certain things.  You hear about the employee who steals and know not to hire people like that.”

Cosgrove, now 62, doesn’t set many rules when it comes to running the company.  “I have only one: we always try to play to our strengths,” she says.  If a lamp isn’t selling well, for example, the staff won’t invest time or resources trying to salvage it.  “We put our energy and focus on the things that work and get out of what doesn’t,” she says.  “That lesson plays over and over.”

She’s also learned not to get too far ahead of her customers.  “Since I work with shades every day, I’m ready to move on even though you aren’t,” she says.  “You have to be sensitive to what your customer wants.”

Strengths and Weaknesses

As an entrepreneur, Cosgrove acknowledges her shortcomings and finds ways to offset them.  “Having been a customer all my life, I am passionate about customer service but I’m not good at it,” she says.  “I hate selling so I stay out of it.  I always hire people who are better than me.”

On the flip side, she loves the creativity and stays personally involved in every lamp design.  Her sentimental favorite is the company’s founding design:  Alicia, named after the salesperson who helped Cosgrove choose the shade for the lamp’s candlestick.

She enjoys the camaraderie of her business and counts her competitors among her friends.  “It’s a very huggy, kissy industry,” she says.  “You spend many hours together at trade shows and get to know each other really well.”

Looking ahead, Cosgrove expects to grow the company’s occasional furniture business, as she thinks a more diverse product line will be important. Her expansion plans will focus on the U.S., Canada and South America, since Europe and other overseas markets have different wiring for lighting.

For aspiring entrepreneurs, Cosgrove’s advice, like herself, is direct:  Research everything.  Read trade journals and talk to bankers.  Then if you still want to start a business, just do it.

“Working for yourself means working twice as hard and twice as much,” she says.  “Be sure to pick a business you like.”

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About Lynne Strang

I'm a writer who blogs about 40-and-older business owners. I am also the author of "Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs: Eight Principles for Starting a Business After Age 40." Outside of work, I enjoy reading, cooking, vegetable gardening and exercise (especially cycling).
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